After its field test, the Wunder docked at Lillin Outpost Zion, the entire ship resting upon a dry dock the size of a small harbor, with cranes and mechanical arms hovering over it like a protective embrace. After the ship powered down, Shinji and Rei were finally let out of Unit 01's entry plug. It was a little tedious, having to spend the majority of their time aboard the Wunder sitting in the entry plugs doing nothing while the ship wasn't in combat, but in a way it reminded him of the sync tests he and the other pilots used to take at NERV back in the old days. It was actually easier, as he and Rei didn't actually have to focus on synchronizing, as allowing the Eva to idle at around ten percent was perfectly sufficient for WILLE's needs when not in combat. And now that repairs had been completed, the Wunder could always land in the water and motor around on their nuclear generators to allow for the occasional break. According to Doctor Akagi, prolonged durations immersed in LCL was something she wanted to avoid, so they couldn't spend more than five hours in the air at a time. That was the price, it seemed, for being able to travel at supersonic speeds.
And at least Shinji wasn't alone in there. The long durations within the entry plug afforded him some time to help Rei get reacquainted with her new surroundings, and remind her of her old life. Much of the memories she had with him in Tokyo-3 were intact, but there was a disconnect somewhere that seemed to be preventing the emotional impact of most of the memories. He would mention a memory, and most of the time, she would just passively acknowledge it. Or perhaps, that was just Rei being Rei.
The thing that reassured him was that he would only have to remind her of a memory once, and she would retain it. She was slowly building herself back up to where she had been all those years ago. And there were a few memories that Shinji had brought up that seemed to have a positive effect on her. The visit to the aquarium in particular had brought a smile to her face.
That had given him an idea for later.
"Thank you for your assistance, Lieutenant Commander Ibuki!" Shinji said congenially as he bowed his head towards Maya as she strutted impatiently along the catwalk past them, Rei climbing out of the entry plug after him.
The older brunette's features darkened slightly as she paused in her step to peer back at him.
"Let's not stand on ceremony here," she wrinkled her nose. "Neither one of us is here because we want to be. We can just leave it at that."
Shinji withered a little at that. He had just been trying to be polite.
"Asuka…that is, Captain Shikinami…" he started, looking away sheepishly. "She told me that I needed to better adhere to WILLE's code of conduct. So I thought-"
"What?" Maya interrupted him, a cold expression on her face. "You think a bit of kowtowing is going to make us forget what you did, Shinji?"
Shinji lowered his eyes, his brow furrowed. He just couldn't seem to get over this hurdle with anyone.
"I'm just…" he murmured, sounding a little frustrated. "I'm just trying to move forward! I can't linger on my mistakes forever. What else am I suppose to do?"
Maya gritted her teeth in irritation. "You want to know I think you should do!? I think you ought to-!"
Shinji tensed, expecting further reproach, but none came. Instead, Lieutenant Commander took a breath, as if realizing how unprofessional she was being.
"Nevermind," she said, in a much more moderate tone. "You're both dismissed."
"But…Lieutenant Commander…" Shinji began.
"I said dismissed!" Maya barked angrily.
Shinji pursed his lips sullenly as he watched the Lieutenant Commander march down the catwalk and out of the core area, leaving him and Rei alone with Unit 01's massive head peering down at them from within its confines of the bright red ship's core, technicians scurrying all about them, performing post-operational maintenance and flight calibrations.
"Ikari…" Rei murmured, when he did not speak or move for a while.
She too still wore her DSS choker, a constant reminder that they were still prisoners.
Shinji turned to her, putting on the friendliest smile he could muster, though he knew how insincere it must have looked.
"I have an idea, Ayanami," he smiled, even as he still felt like crying. "Let's go have dinner together. The mess hall should still be open."
Rei's eyes seemed to light up at that. "Like…like what we did at the aquarium?"
"Exactly!" Shinji said, starting forward along the catwalk towards the black and yellow caution-striped exits. "Well, the food's not going to be as good…or, like anything resembling food, but…at least there won't be any meat."
Rei nodded, the ghost of a smile appearing on her face. "I…I would like that…"
Shinji's smile became a bit more genuine. Rei Q had not even known the meaning of the word 'like.' Maybe there was hope for this Rei after all.
"Good!" he nodded in exaggerated exuberance. "Let's just change out of these plug suits, and then we can head over to the mess hall."
Rei nodded as she followed along. "Ok…"
Shinji's mood brightened. He had not been able to spend much of his off-time with Rei as he had wanted to because she was usually testing with Dr. Akagi. Most of the time they shared was in the entry plug of Unit 01. But now, the Doctor was otherwise occupied at Outpost Zion, leaving the two of them a little downtime.
It was not a short trek from the core to the pilot bunks, but the time went by quickly as Shinji filled it with more reminiscing about the old days.
"It was kind of frightening, actually," he mused. "You and Asuka both had so many cuts on her your hands! No one had a clue what you were doing, least of all me."
Rei nodded as she followed him down the corridor towards the bunks. "We…never got to eat dinner with your father?"
Shinji shook his head somberly. "No. But the gesture really meant a lot to me. It made me really happy."
Something in Rei's mind seemed to click. "Eating together…makes you happy."
"Well, I like to think so at any rate," Shinji shrugged. "Not everyone may agree, but most of the time…"
He paused in his step, and Rei blinked in confusion as his words trailed off.
Shinji had stopped walking. He had stopped talking. He was barely breathing.
They had made it to the bunk area. Just outside his own bunk, actually. And Shinji was completely frozen in place, his eyes wide as saucers.
Rei followed his gaze to the front of his door, appearing confused.
"I…do not understand…" she asked, naively. "Are you needed somewhere?"
Shinji was unable to answer. All he could do was stand there, with a terrified look on his face, quivering as a multitude of emotions overtook him.
Scrawled across his door, in bright red paint, were two words:
Outpost Zion was WILLE's largest base of operations, but its resources, at least when it came to Evangelion technology, was sparse at best. Without access to the vast amounts of government funding they had at NERV, Ritsuko and her team had to scrape by with what they had. And when it came to synchronization testing, there were no test plugs available to them. Instead, they had to use the actual entry plug that would be going into the Evangelion upon its completion. The entry plug currently in use was erected on stilts and wired up to the ad hoc MAGI super-computer system integrated into the outpost, which Ritsuko had recreated to the best of her ability with that resources were available. It paled in comparison to the real thing, but she had a fairly robust system in place, and with it, she had been able to fabricate not one but two dual-pilot entry plugs. The former of which now resided in the Wunder's core, allowing Shinji and Rei to bring the beast to activational readiness, the latter of which now contained Captain Asuka Shikinami and Mari Makinami, both wearing plug suits and immersed in LCL, synchronizing for what would hopefully be the activation of a brand new type of Eva.
"Something on your mind, dear?" Mari tilted her head back to peer up at Asuka, who was seated above and behind her in the entry plug.
Asuka wrinkled her nose. "No. Shut up."
The sync testing had been going on for most of the day. It was actually a multitude of tests strung together, leaving the pilots with several periods of downtime in the entry plugs, with little else to do but pester each other. By the time the afternoon rolled around, Asuka was really wishing she had found some way to swipe the DSS trigger that Ritsuko had tuned to Mari's shock collar.
"Jeez, I don't believe you!" Asuka groaned after a long period of silence in which she just knew Mari had spent the duration of with that annoying cat-like grin on her face. "Does nothing faze you? How could anyone be this nonchalant about turning their back on all of humanity!?"
"Don't be such a drama queen, Princess," Mari rolled her eyes. "I haven't turned my back on anyone. Everything I've done has been for the benefit of WILLE."
"And what is 'WILLE' to you, exactly?" Asuka demanded. "Some day-care center that doesn't give a shit about protocol? What if that NERV clone had actually managed to destroy the ship, huh!? Would you still have that high and mighty attitude if all of us had ended up smashed into bits at the bottom of the ocean?"
"So, it's my attitude that bothers you?" Mari asked, thoughtfully.
"You're missing the point!" Asuka blared. "God, you're so aggravating! It's like you don't ever take anything seriously!"
There was a short pause while Mari seemed to mull that over.
"Yeah, well…" Mari said, for the first time a hint of sincerity in her voice. "You're not exactly the easiest to work with either, Princess."
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Asuka blurted, sarcastically. "I'll be sure to mind my manners next time we're in the middle of a fucking war-zone! And besides, I don't need this kind of lip from some traitor like you!"
"I'm not a-!" Mari began, before cutting herself off. "Oh, forget it! You're not interested in listening to anything I have to say! Your mind was made up about me from day one!"
"Show me one smidgen of evidence to prove me wrong, and I will spin on a fucking dime!" Asuka retorted. "But you can't, because you never take anything seriously enough to ever give a straight answer! At least, I can never tell if you're ever being serious enough, because you've always got that fucking smirk on your face! You always look like you're plotting some nefarious scheme of some sort! So excuse me for jumping to conclusions! Especially when they turn out to be true!"
"I told you!" Mari shouted back, her cool demeanor beginning to crack. "I'm not-!"
"Pilots!" Ritsuko voice sounded over the intercoms as her face appeared on the screen before the both of them. "We're beginning our next test. I would ask that you refrain from arguing and concentrate on the task at hand until the test is over."
Both girls harrumphed in acknowledgement, and turned their attention to concentrating on synchronizing, neither one of them satisfied with the other.
Shinji sat across from Rei in the mess hall. It wasn't very crowded, as about half of the Wunder's crew had disembarked to see their families. Outpost Zion had an array of long range sensors, and WILLE's naval escort was spread out across the coastline, keeping an ear to the ground. The two systems would, in theory, give the Wunder ample warning should an attack come, and give the crew time to return to their posts. Still, the ship was kept at minimal operational readiness, which most of the currently stationed crew had no problem accommodating for, as the remainder that had stayed aboard had no families to return to. Some had simply been loners, but the overwhelming margin seemed to be those survivors who had lost loved ones in the last fourteen years, either during Third Impact, or the ensuing angelic purge that had transpired afterward.
Shinji may not have had more than a high school level of education, but even he was smart enough to realize how many of the Wunder's crew must have placed the blame for their families' deaths on him.
The two of them sat across from each other at an otherwise unoccupied table in an uncomfortable silence, scraping at their nutrient paste in abject disinterest. They had changed into their WILLE uniforms, with Rei's matching his own. On the far side of the room, two groups of people in WILLE officer uniforms sitting at two separate tables cast surreptitious glances in their direction, none of them looking all too friendly.
"Are you…not enjoying this?" Rei asked, sounding worried.
Shinji looked up from his plate, blinking away his reverie, still feeling the eyes of an unfriendly crowd looming all around him.
"No, no, I am…" he assured her, though he did not sound at all sure of himself. "I'm just…distracted."
"By that message on your door?" Rei asked, bluntly.
Shinji winced, confirming her query.
"I am sorry…" Rei apologized. "Perhaps…the message was not intended to be hostile?"
Shinji sighed, shaking his head. "A message in red that says 'get out?' The intent is pretty clear."
"Then perhaps…" Rei pondered, clearly grasping at straws. "Perhaps the message was not intended for you."
"Who else would it be for?" Shinji demanded, impatiently.
Rei looked away.
Shinji looked up, his expression softening. "No…Ayanami, they…they have far more reason to hate me than you. You, you're a mystery. They might be scared of you, but they don't know if you're a threat. Me…"
He lowered his eyes once again.
"Me, they have every reason to hate…"
The corners of Rei's mouth curved downward into a frown, but she otherwise had no reaction to give.
"Shinji!" a voice sounded from behind him.
Shinji turned around to see Sakura carrying a lunch tray and standing behind him, a polite smile on her face.
"Ayanami," she inclined her head to address the other girl. "Do the two of you mind if I join you?"
Shinji cast a nervous glance at the other two tables that had been giving them the evil eye. None of them seemed to be paying them much heed at the moment, but he still could not shake the fear that by associating with the two of them, Sakura would be putting herself at risk.
The Lieutenant seemed to read his mind as she saw where his eyes had fallen.
"Oh, don't worry about them," she assured, dismissively. "They won't bother us."
"Are you sure?" Shinji asked, suspiciously.
"Positive!" Sakura chimed. "I've worked with them for years!"
"Join us then, Second Lieutenant Suzuhara," Rei said politely, sounding stiff but sincere. "Ikari informs me that dining together with others can bring happiness. So…I believe the term is, 'more and merry?"
"'The more the merrier,'" Sakura corrected with a smile, sitting down besides her. "And I couldn't agree more."
"Ah," Rei nodded in acknowledgement. "Dr. Akagi has been coaching me on how to better mingle with WILLE's crew so as to avoid such situations as Ikari finds himself in."
Sakura blinked in confusion. "What…situation would that be?"
"Ayanami!" Shinji winced, helplessly. "We don't need to involve the Lieutenant in this."
"No, I want to know!" Sakura insisted. "What's wrong, Shinji?"
"It's nothing, Sakura," Shinji concentrated on his food.
"Ikari has received a threatening message on his door," Rei reported simply, responding to the order from the higher ranking officer.
Sakura's expression fell. "Oh. You saw that already? Damn…I was hoping I could get that cleaned up before you made it back to your bunk."
Shinji's nose wrinkled. Had Sakura been trying to detain them while a cleanup crew scrubbed his door? Suddenly, Sakura's appearance here didn't seem all too coincidental.
"I don't need you to protect me from the truth, Sakura," he said, grumpily. "If that's the opinion that everyone on this ship has, then so be it."
"Shinji…" Sakura's eyes softened. "You shouldn't have to live in fear like that. Not from your fellow crew-members."
Shinji scoffed. "I'm an Eva pilot. Living in fear is what we do."
"But Shinji…" Sakura shook her head. "You're one of us now!"
Shinji just shook his head.
"I may wear the uniform, Sakura, but I don't think I'll ever be one of you. Not anymore."
Sakura pursed her lips in a look of genuine sadness. "Shinji…"
"I gotta go…" he said, getting up from his seat.
Rei started to rise as well, but Sakura put a hand on her arm and shook her head, silently. Rei did not quite understand, but the Second Lieutenant still outranked both of them, so she was obliged to do as she said. Still, Rei's eyes followed Shinji, as the ghosts of several emotions flitted around in the back of her mind; concern, compassion, hope, belonging…but perhaps one stood out above all.
As Shinji made his way towards his bunk, he tried not to make eye contact with anyone he passed. It was late evening, and most of the crew had either left the ship, or hunkered down for the night, whether that be to drink and play cards, or actually get in some shut-eye before the next inevitable emergency. As a result, there weren't that many passers-by in the hallway between the mess hall and his bunk.
But he was aware of one individual that seemed to be following behind him, despite turning down a multitude of corners on the way.
Shinji picked up his pace, but he could hear his pursuer's steps pick up as well. He accelerated to a run and made a dash for the pilot barracks, eyes widening as fear overtook him. His bunk was just around the corner ahead, but the footsteps from behind were getting closer. Panting for breath, Shinji hurried around the corner to his hallway, but he bumped right into a large WILLE crew member with short red hair whose girth filled most of the corridor, and Shinji fell over onto his backside.
"Sorry, shrimp…" the big man crossed his arms, staring down at him. "Didn't see you there."
Shinji pushed himself backwards instinctively, staring up in astonishment at how large the guy was. But his attention suddenly turned to his pursuer coming from the right, a wiry young man with short black hair and a cold, hard scowl on his face. Shinji recognized the two of them from one of the other tables in the mess hall, and he began to panic as he rolled onto his front, scrambling to his feet to dash down the only remaining hall. But he felt someone tackle him to the ground from behind, and he let out a grunt of pain.
"Where do you think you're going, you little punk!?" a vicious sounding voice hissed in his ear as the stronger teen pulled Shinji to his feet.
"Let me go!" Shinji grunted in pain, tugging at the arms that ensnared him, scrambling his legs for purchase as he tried to escape. Then the wind was suddenly knocked out of him by a sudden punch to the gut, and he was seeing stars.
"That was for my brother!" the younger man shouted angrily, bitterness and anger seeping from his voice.
Another punch followed, this one knocking Shinji in the jaw, sending him staggering back into the bigger man's arms, who grabbed him and held him in place.
"And that!" the black haired officer growled in anger. "That was for my sister, you son of a bitch!"
In spite of his current predicament, Shinji was suddenly reminded of his first encounter with Toji, after what had happened with Sakura. He doubted very much, however, that this particular encounter would end there.
"You've got a lot to answer for, shrimp," the big man's menacing voice said behind him, as he held Shinji in a full nelson, leaving his body and face completely undefended.
Shinji tried blinking to clear his vision, but the wind was suddenly knocked out of him again by another gut punch.
"My family!" the younger man shouted, eyes red with rage, before knocking Shinji in jaw. "My friends!" he shouted again, and following it up with a left hook that took him in the cheekbone. "My entire hometown!"
Shinji grunted and choked in pain, his lip bleeding and his face bruising from the assault.
"Rrrng!" Shinji suddenly gasped, doubling over in pain as the older teen brought his knee up into Shinji's groin.
"What right do you have!?" the boy demanded maniacally. "What right do you have to walk around freely after they were all left to die!?"
Shinji spat up mouthful of blood, his vision still clouded by stars as blood dripped from his nose and mouth.
"Ugh…" he groaned in pain, finally managing to lift his head. "I'm…"
The boy grabbed him by the hair, yanking his face up to meet his.
"What!?" he demanded, furiously. "What do you possibly have to say for yourself!?"
"Ugh!" Shinji grimaced, the taste of copper filling his mouth. "I...I'm not…I'm not a threat to you! As long as I've…got this…thing on…"
The older teen's cold, dark colored eyes fell on the choker around his neck.
"This!?" he grunted, unimpressed. "Is this thing supposed to make me happy? This piece of shit!?"
The boy hooked a finger beneath the choker, his knuckle driving into Shinji's jugular, causing him to choke.
"What good does this do me, huh!?" he demanded. "What do I care if WILLE's got you collared!?"
"Ulgh!" Shinji coughed in pain as the boy's grip around his choker aptly caused it to choke him. "Hnng…stop!"
The young man snorted as a wicked smirk appeared on his face. "Hey…this thing has a fail-safe, right?"
Shinji blinked in confusion as the the boy began to twist his finger and the choker along with it, causing it to tighten around his neck, and Shinji began to panic as his airway began to close off.
"What…?" he coughed in alarm. "What are you…doing…?"
The young man leaned closer to glare into Shinji's eyes. "Wonder how long it'll take to set this thing off?"
Shinji's eyes suddenly widened in terror as he realized what he was trying to do. An image of Kaworu's smiling face appeared to him, as the choker around his neck triggered and sent a dozen, ruby-red spires shooting into his neck, before showering the entry plug with the bits and remains that used to be his head.
Shinji began to thrash and kick wildly with the last of his strength.
"Stop!" he shouted desperately in a raspy voice. "Stop!"
"Hey, Lee…" the big man said behind Shinji, still holding firm. "Do we really wanna go that far, man?"
"Shut up, Jim!" Lee growled like a vicious dog. "I want to see him squirm like the rat he is!"
"No! Please!" Shinji whimpered in a tremulous voice as he struggled, tears running down his face. "Don't…"
Lee seemed to delight at Shinji's fear.
"What's the matter, shrimp?" he demanded. "Don't wanna die? Do you think my family wanted to die!? Do you think anyone that you killed wanted to die!? Do you think begging and pleading saved them!?"
His finger continued to twist, and the hard metal polymer in the choker twisted with it, and Shinji wasn't sure what would give out first, his larynx or the the choker's fail-safe.
"No…don't…" Shinji wheezed with the last of his oxygen, tears mingling with blood as it dripped down his face. "Stop…please…"
That's when an ear-splittingly loud voice filled the hallway.
All Shinji knew at that point was coming face-first with the floor as both officers dropped him, standing up straight.
"Captain…!" Lee managed, completely taken aback.
"C-Captain Shikinami!" Jim blurted in fear.
Shinji was still lying face first on the floor, gasping for breath and shaking in fear. But even then, he had been able to make out that name.
He heard the sound of loud, determined footsteps fast approaching them, and managed to tilt his head up just in time to see Asuka in her officer's uniform marching down the corridor, both Jim and Lee standing at attention.
"Captain!" Lee began. "I can explain-!"
Lee was cut off, however, when Asuka promptly whirled and sent the heel of her boot into the side of his head, driving it into the wall!
"Ungh!" Lee cried out in pain.
"C-C-Captain!" Jim stammered in disbelief as he watched Lee fall to the floor, completely dazed.
Asuka's cold glare fell on the other soldier, and she seemed almost casual as she grabbed the big man by the wrist, twisting and causing him to double forward in pain. She then put a hand on his shoulder and sent his head slamming into the wall as well, sending him falling over backwards, bruised and bleeding.
Asuka then reached down and grabbed Lee by the collar and tossed him like a rag doll, propped up partway onto Jim's bulky torso, before planting her foot onto Lee's chest and driving him down onto Jim's stomach, causing them both to grunt in pain.
She peered down at them with a deadly serious expression on her face.
"Assaulting a fellow crew-member is a serious offense, Privates," she said, her voice merciless and unfeeling.
Lee gritted his teeth, a goose-egg welling up on his forehead.
"He's not a-!"
Lee's breath caught in his throat as Asuka drove her foot into his sternum.
"What was that, Private?" Asuka glared, menacingly. "Do I need to repeat myself?"
She did not ease off of him, and Lee grunted in pain.
Asuka exhaled through her nose as she looked at the two of them the way someone would look at piles of garbage littering the street.
"I catch you two doing something like this again, and it's be a month in the brig," she growled slowly, a look of unmistakeable malice on her face. "And I can assure you, you'll both be needing stitches before you get there."
Shinji blinked in disbelief at what he was seeing. Was Asuka actually…sticking up for him?
She pressed her foot down harder, causing both men to yelp.
"Do I make myself clear?" she demanded in a cruel, breathy voice.
"Y-Yes ma'am!" Jim blubbered, wincing pitifully.
"Understood, ma'am!" Lee gritted his teeth, eyes clenched in pain.
"Good," Asuka sneered, taking her foot off of them. "Dismissed."
The two of them hurriedly got to their feet, both seemed to need to support themselves against the bulkhead as they filed out of the pilot bunk area.
Asuka's expression was unreadable as she stepped over to where Shinji lay on the floor.
He blinked up at her, bleeding and bruised, too many emotions welling up inside him to properly articulate anything. Shame, fear, gratitude, confusion, and most of all, pure and simple awe. Asuka had dispatched the two of them in a manner of seconds!
"Clean yourself up…" she grunted, dismissively as she stepped past him, not bothering to help him to his feet. "You look like a mess."
Shinji blinked as he watched her march down the hallways towards her bunk.
"Asuka…" he grunted, face bloody, as he slowly managed to get to his feet, his knees still shaking.
"Do me a favor," she commanded simply, not pausing until she reached her door. "And forget that any of this just happened."
Shinji was leaning against the wall, limping and blinking at her in disbelief.
"Oh…" he muttered, licking the blood from his lips. "Ok…"
He could only watch her as she pressed the switch by the front of her door, letting it hiss open.
"And watch your back, will you?" she said, waiting outside her door, seemingly unwilling to meet his gaze. "I may not be there to save your ass next time."
Shinji blinked, even more confused than ever, as she disappeared through the door, letting it whoosh shut behind her.
Ritsuko stared at her monitors with a dark expression on her face. One one screen was Unit 01's energy output, which provided a pretty solid indicator of its activation status. The other displayed a security feed around the exterior of the pilot barracks.
"Dr. Akagi!" one of her lab technicians called out, a squirrely looking young man who would have made a promising scientist if he could just get his head out of the clouds. "Unit 01's energy readings have just spiked!"
Ritsuko nodded absently, taking a puff from her cigarette.
"Nothing to concern yourself with, Sonoda," she exhaled absently. "Just running a few tests."
Sonoda stared out the viewport at the core. He could still hear the power cells cycling down.
"I said," Ritsuko threw a hard look in the technician's direction, "It's just a test."
Sonoda blinked in intimidation, before slowly nodding.
"Y-yes ma'am…" he muttered, returning to his station.
Ritsuko sighed and turned her attention back to her screens. She had been worried for a second, but it appeared that Asuka had intervened in time. She didn't want to imagine what would have happened if she hadn't.
She took another drag from her cigarette before mashing it into her ashtray.
They were running out of time.
To be continued…